No women allowed! That was the first rule of Man Camp. It was a standing rule that had been in place for the last 10 years. The reasons for this rule we’re written in blood over the years. It didn’t matter to me. In my opinion Man Camp was no place for women in the first place. Man Camp was a private fish camp located deep in the marshy bowels surrounding Barataria Bay, south of New Orleans. The camp itself sat atop a small island in the middle of a small brackish lake only accessible by boat and heavily guarded by the only full-time occupants, 2 large German Shepards. Not everyone could come to Man Camp, it was by invitation only and not many folks got that invitation.
It was the mid-nineties and I had finally left California and headed east to start my new tour at a small air base south of New Orleans. I was looking forward to the change of scenery and I knew that Louisiana was referred to as the “Sportsman’s Paradise”. That sounded like my kind of place.
Shortly after arriving at the airbase, I bought an old 14-foot flats boat from my dad up in Oklahoma and brought it down to Louisiana to fish the marsh. My job in the military was slowing down a bit just after the first Gulf War and I had a lot of down time to fish the marsh for reds and specks. I had a few buddies who had been stationed there for a few years ahead of me and they showed me the ropes for fishing the marsh. After a few trips out with them I started going more and more by myself and learning as much as I could. I learned the habits and feeding locations of reds during the different seasons. I learned tackle and tactics, as well as what to look for when looking for signs of actively feeding fish. The most important thing I learned over a few years was navigating my way around the massive maze of channels that were integrated into the marsh. A friend of mine from the base, Eric liked fishing the marsh as much as I did. We got together every chance we could and hit the marsh in search of reds. We knew of three or four different spots where we could catch reds just about every time we went. We meet up with another fisherman, Jerry, who was in our squadron also. He had bought a Sea Ray walk through ski boat after fishing with us for a few months. Eric bought an old aluminum 14 jon boat, so me, Jerry and Eric all had our own boats. We either fished with each other in one boat or we each took our own boats out and made a wager on who would catch the most fish. We had a lot of fun. Jerry met a kid who had grown up in the marsh and joined the Navy to see the world, only to be stationed 3 miles from his birthplace. His name was Trent, and he knew the marsh and red fishing like the back of his hand. Trent was tall and thin and a true marsh rat from way back. Trent and Jerry fished together a lot. They got to be good friends and soon after Trent introduced Jerry to his neighbor, Mr. Tom. Now Mr. Tom was an old, retired Navy Chief from Louisiana. He was a big man, well over 6 feet tall and well respected around town and in the political circles. He was the type of man who was always looking for a reason to smile. He was good natured and came to be a good personal friend of mine.
Jerry, Trent and Mr. Tom would have a few beers from time to time, usually in Trent’s back yard while throwing horseshoes. One afternoon Mr. Tom ask Jerry if he and a few of his buddies from the squadron would like to come out to his Camp out in the marsh for a weekend. He said that the camp slept 14 comfortably and had a 100-foot fishing dock complete with 12 boat slips, running water, heat and air and a big diesel generator just in case we lost power. Yep, power. Mr. Tom had the Parish electrical company run electricity to the camp, 8 miles across the marsh. Mr. Tom had friends in high places. Jerry passed the invitation on to me, Eric and a couple of our pilots who liked to fish, giving us all the details about camp. We also had a couple of our F-18 pilots in the squadron that liked to fly fish for redfish in the marsh and had their own aluminum flats boat they fished out of. These guys did a lot of Florida flats type fishing together and were going to join us at lunch on Saturday at the camp and then stay Saturday night. One of the pilots was my Division Officer and I talked with him often about fishing. His name was Lt Dan, and he was much like me, raised in a small community and loved the outdoors. The other pilot joining us was our Squadron Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Rick, and he was all about learning to fish the marsh, having recently moved to the area and hearing so much about the fishing. He was our squadron skipper, the highest-ranking officer of the group and later he proved to be the Entertainment Officer for the trip.
We all coordinated a weekend when we could take off work early on Friday and get to the camp at a decent hour. Well, like any well laid plan in the military it all went to hell in a handbag. Eric and I wound up getting the whole day off, but Jerry and Trent couldn’t make it out till the evening. Mr. Tom was going to ride with Jerry in the late afternoon and Trent and a couple of his buddies were bringing up the rear later after dark. The two pilots were still coming on Saturday and bringing us fresh lunch from a seafood restaurant in Belle Chase called “Salvos”. Belle Chase was the town I lived in, and Salvo’s restaurant had the best Po’boys in town.
Eric and I decided to take his boat since my motor had been acting up. We loaded up the gear in the boat early Friday morning and Eric and I set out to fish the marsh all day and meet up with Jerry and Mr. Tom at 4 pm at the entrance of the lake from the main canal and follow the power lines to the island. Since Eric’s boat was just a bit small for running a marsh lake in adverse weather, we planned to have Jerry cut a wake in the Sea Ray if need be, and we would follow close behind. I don’t know that I’d ever attempted that maneuver before, but we figured it would work. As it turned out, the weather was adverse. It was late fall, and a cold front was passing through the day of our departure. Fishing wasn’t that good for Eric and I as we boated several smaller reds and a few short specks but nothing worthy of the Igloo cooler. The weather was a little windy at times but when you’re fishing canals sometimes you can find canals that are fishable in the wind. We found a canal with a small grove of trees that made for a good wind break, and we decided to anchor and fish the bottom while waiting on Jerry. Eric like to have the occasional cocktail and pulled a fifth of Seagram’s Seven out of the cooler and made a big tumbler full of 7 and 7. We chatted and caught a few rat reds and hard heads as the afternoon past. The front was getting closer, and it started raining as we pulled into the canal out of the marsh to meet Jerry. We could see his Sea Ray coming up the canal from our position. As he came by we pulled in behind him and we were off. Jerry’s Sea Ray was a 21-footer with a Volvo inboard. Eric’s little flats boat had a little Merc tiller motor. Needless to say, Jerry had to lay off the throttle for us to keep up. When we got to the mouth of the lake at the power lines the wind was kicking up some large chop across the water. We all looked across the lake and then each other. It wasn’t good. Jerry yelled over “what do you guys want to do”? We both wanted to go but Eric and I both knew there was going to be an element of danger involved. I asked Eric how he felt about it and he ask me if I wanted to drive the boat. He knew he had one to many of those 7 and 7’s to handle the boat in those kinds of conditions. I was pretty good with a boat, have had on most of my life. I looked at it more as a challenge than anything else. Yes, there was an element of danger, but I felt confident we could pull it off. It wasn’t going to be easy because there was driving rain as well as a good beefy 2–3-foot chop on the water. It was like a 2–3-foot wash tub to be exact.
I told Jerry we would try it. I told him not to get far ahead and keep a close eye on us in case we decided to bail and head back. I switched places with Eric and grabbed the tiller. I got behind Jerry and we entered the mouth of the lake. Jerry sped up and we tried to stay about 50-100 feet behind the Sea Ray. We were soaked in the driving rain, and I tried to keep my focus on Jerry’s prop wash. Eric had moved to the center seat in the jon boat after getting hammered by water coming over the bow in the front. He was facing me and hunched over covering his head. His body actually shielded some of the rain as I squinted hard to keep Jerry’s boat in site. Sometimes I could see Mr. Tom looking back and watching us from the passenger side of Jerry’s boat. I’ve been it some tough conditions on the water, but this was by far the most dangerous position I’ve ever put myself in when it comes to boating. The weather was brutal. It was just about all I could do to work the tiller in the driving rain. With Eric in the middle sometimes the bow of the boat would rear back when taking a wave. The boat would slam back down onto the water. I shuttered every time the boat would slam down. We had another mile or so to go when I started hearing a popping noise. We were sitting in ankle deep water in the boat, so I reached back and pulled the drain plug. We had a lot of rain in the boat. We kept on going, getting battered by waves as we went. The popping noise continued, and it seemed we were taking on water. I decided to just keep going. I knew we were getting close and pulling the plug helped drain the water as it came in. Eric was hollering saying that the bottom seam was splitting, and the popping was the loose rivets giving out as the boat slammed hard in the water. I told Eric we didn’t have time to worry about the leak, just pray that the boat doesn’t fill up before we get to the island. Jerry and Mr. Tom had no idea what we were dealing with back in the jon boat. They were battling waves also. The lake was dotted with shallow reefs and oyster beds so navigating around these areas could be tough. I kept checking the bottom of the boat and the depth of the water. I felt good about our chances. I could see a dark shape in front of Jerry as the island and the camp came into view. I was relieved. We just needed to beach the jon boat as quickly as possible and drag it ashore. We pulled the boats to the leeward side of the island and Mr. Tom pointed out a little area of the island to beach the boat. I circled the boat on the leeward side of the island to drain more water out of the boat before beaching. I got a run at the mud bank and ran the boat up as far as I could in the mud. Eric and I dragged the boat up on the bank and unloaded the gear to get out of the rain. As we walked up to the camp, Jerry and Mr. Tom were coming up the dock from the boat slips. Mr. Tom stuck out his hand and said, “my name is Mr. Tom and welcome to Man Camp”!
And so, it began….. It was the start of something that has stuck in my mind for years. Mr. Tom’s camp was surrounded by water with heavy pillars below the camp and a good 10 feet from ground to the floor joists over head. There was a 100 ft dock on the front side of the cabin facing the bay with 6 boat slips on either end of the dock and a lighted cleaning station on the dock. There was an old rusty barge that was half sunk in front of one end of the dock that served to cut down on the erosion of the island from heavy tides and the numerous storms the island had weathered. Mr. Tom’s two German Shepards greeted Eric and I as we surveyed our new surroundings. The two dogs were introduced to us as the only two full time occupants of the island and I knew from being around dogs, these two dogs would tear a man to shreds had he dropped by unannounced. These dogs were big and very intimidating but tolerated us without getting too friendly. Mr. Tom gave us the tour of the camp and we found our bunks for the night. Once the gear was brought in and stored, we headed out to secure the boats for the night and prepared for a long night of rain and rum. Trent pulled into one of the slips as we were checking the extent of the damage to Eric’s boat. “What happen to the boat” Trent asked as he was walking towards us. “She’s broke big time” Eric said. Trent looked at me and just shook his head and laughed. I didn’t really know Trent that well until that night. I guess you really get to know a person over a few gallons of rum and a few late night poker games. By the time we left the camp it was like we were old buds. Trent was much like me, we both loved to fish and you could see it in our eyes as well as the dedication we put into our fishing. I was like a sponge when it came to fishing the marsh. I observed and absorbed everything I could possibly learn on every fishing trip. Trent was the same. When it came to fishing, he was very serious and very good at it.
Trent opened the ice chest in the jon and looked at Eric and I with a disappointing grin. “No fish for dinner”? I laughed and told Trent that I would take care of that problem in short order and grabbed my spinning rig. On the far end of the island there was a small channel or “cut” as we called them. During tidal movements and wind drive currents, those small cuts can hold redfish in an ambush mode at or near the entrance and exits of these areas. My absolute favorite jig for redfish was a 1/2-ounce lead jig head in a hot pink or bubblegum with a soft plastic cockahoo minnow in a black over pearl color. It was a deadly combination for reds and the occasional speckled trout or flounder. As I made my first cast with my trusty bait I thought I could have set myself up for embarrassment if I failed to catch a fish or two around the island. As I fan casted the mouth of the cut I thought about how cool the camp was, complete with a big brick woodburning fireplace in a western style living area with leather sofa beds and a couple of leather lazy boys. The dock out in the front had big sodium lights pointed towards the water to attract bait, shrimp and fish. The fish cleaning station was large and had lighting and a plug in for my electric filet knife. We were set.
I worked my way around the cut and scoured the shoreline. If you’ve never walked the muddy areas of the marsh, I have to tell you, it takes practice. The area we were in was rich in the mineral sulfur, and the smell of the sulfur leeched its way through the ground, to the surface. The surface was very soft, and the mud was very grey, very soft and very smelly. One thing I learned quickly was to stay away from clear muddy areas. There were big clumps of marsh grass and all around these clumps were big clear exposed muddy areas that served as landmines for sinking up to your waist in mud. If you have never experienced sinking up to your waist in mud, take it from me, it’s no fun and getting out of that situation can wear you out very quickly. Once you do free yourself from the mud, you have to carry around the stench of caked on sulfur mud which attracts flies and those little jewels of the marsh called “noseeums” or nat bugs. They are not your run of the mill nats but the little biting nats that left little red itchy welts on your skin. They attack any exposed skin and they attacked in numbers, not just one or two. The best way to navigate the marsh is to step on or around the big clumps of marsh grass and stay away from open muddy areas.
Just as I was getting ready to move to the other end of the small cut, I saw my line quickly move from the shoreline where the jig had just entered the water. I very quickly realized something had the jig and was headed out of the cut. I set the hook on the running red and the fight was on. I worked the fish to the shore near my feet and pulled a 5–6-pound red onto the muddy shore. Finally, a decent red to add to dinner. The rain started again and very quickly the cut was filled with large droplets coming down in blowing sheets. I placed the red up on the bank in the grass and went back to work in the same vecinity as my first catch. A lot of times if you find one redfish in an area, others may be close by. In this case, there was a big ole muley trout nearby. My second fish caught from the same area was a nice 3–4-pound speckled trout. Compared to the bulldog style pulling of the redfish, the speckled trout was far more active and wilier on the hook. A speckled trout has a head shake that can throw a hook in a heartbeat. I can honestly say that I have lost just about as many specks as I have caught. From experience, I knew to keep good pressure on the fish and get it in as quickly as possible. If you give a big trout the chance to escape the hook they will. My philosophy was the less time in the water, the less time for escape.
I piled the big trout up next to the redfish and went right back to work in the same area. I could see Jerry and Trent back at the camp on the front deck. They were watching me through the rain. Jerry gave the universal “any luck” signal with a wave of both outstretched arms and I walked back over to the fish and held up the red and trout for them to see. I could barely make out the sounds through the driving rain but I was fairly certain there was a positive comment judging from the thumbs up from Trent and a quick bird from Jerry. I laughed and went back to work. I felt like I could get a few more as I worked my way down the cut towards the exit. Another red jumped on my little cockahoo jig and much like the first, a nice sized fish to put with the others. The redfish in this area were deep and rich in dark gold and copper colors with randomly placed black dots around the tail area. They were strong, thick shouldered and a relentless fight for the casual angler. As table fare, they were excellent. I had learned different ways to prepare redfish from the locals and each dish was nothing less than delicious when it came to redfish. I heard voices coming from the marsh behind me towards the camp and I turned to see Jerry and Trent coming my way. They stopped by the pile of fish on the bank, and I walked over to chat with them. They didn’t have any tackle and Trent ask if they could take the fish to the camp to filet and prepare for the grill. “Heck ya, have at em” I said to Trent. Trent explained that he had a pretty good recipe that involved a mustard paste on the whole filet side of the fish and cooked scales down on the grill. I soon learned that Trent was a master at grilling redfish as well as another way to prepare redfish. After I let them know, I’d be up to the camp soon, they departed for the cleaning station and the much dryer camp.
It was very near sunset, and I had worked my way to the exit of the cut and scoured the area at the tip of the island. I looked across the marsh in the direction we had crossed the lake and I saw the power lines heading towards the east and I could barely make out the distant flames of the refineries along the Mississippi near the mouth to the gulf. The rain had tailed off and I could see a bass boat coming towards the island along the power lines. I knew Trent was expecting some friends from his squadron and I figured that was them coming in right before dark. Every once in a while, the wind would carry the scent of charcoal and lighter fluid down to me on the shore behind the camp. I had one more sizable redfish for the grill when I called it quits and headed back to camp. I could hear loud voices and laughter coming from the front deck and I knew we were in for a great evening. As it turned out, I knew Trents buddies from our softball league, but we didn’t really know each other except for pleasantries during softball games. They played for a rival team, and I knew them by their abilities to hit the ball. Ken was the biggest, well over 6 feet in height and broad shouldered. At the plate during softball games, I knew Ken as a ringer home run hitter. He was the reason we were in a “3 home run rule” league. His job was to crush the ball over the fence with his bat. He was also the coach of our base All Star team and I was trying to make the All-Star team as a first basemen that year. It was great to have Ken in the camp. Steve was Ken’s friend and the owner of the bass boat they rode in on. Steve was a little older that most of us. He was another softball player and pretty good for his age.
As I made my way up the steps to the deck the party was in full swing. Trent was working the grill up on the front porch and just about everyone was standing around with a cold drink. I could hear talk of crossing the lake in the weather earlier and I knew Eric was sharing our story with the group. I had another redfish to clean and it was getting dark fast. The sun had set across the lake, and I could see a clearing sky of orange and blue looking west off of the dock. It was a great feeling, hearing all the laughing and chatting as I dressed out the red filet for the grill. I wanted to try Trent’s redfish recipe, and I had the perfect filet to put on the grill. Jerry came down to the dock with a cold drink for me and we chatted about our game plan for the morning. With Eric’s boat crippled and unusable, it was going to be a bit cramped with the three of us in Jerry’s Sea Ray. Trent and Mr. Tom would fish out of Trent’s skiff and Ken and Steve in the bass boat. The three of us had fished out of Jerry’s boat before so we knew the drill. Jerry told me that Ken and Steve had brought Mr. Tom a gift from Puerto Rico. It was a full case of Puerto Rico’s finest rum freshly flown in a day earlier courtesy of our local P3 Orion Patrol Squadron returning from parts run to Puerto Rico. Jerry and I discussed our strategy for the night’s poker game. The way it stacked up was Eric, Jerry and I were fighter squadron guys and the rest of the guys in camp came from the P3 patrol squadron. That could make for an interesting poker game, especially if we added a little of that imported rum.
Dinner at the camp was nothing less than five stars. We had plenty of fish, cooked several different ways and side dishes that would make Long John Silver’s jealous. Everyone wanted to know about fishing locations in the morning and the best tackle to use for the day. I was really interested to see a few new places in the marsh, and I looked forward to the challenge of catching fish in unfamiliar waters. Darkness fell on the old camp as we cleaned up after dinner. There was no lack of help for the clean-up, as we all knew what a gift it was to be at the camp, and we definitely wanted to leave a good impression for Mr. Tom. A few of us smokers went to the front deck overlooking the water for a after dinner smoke and some fishing chatter. The big sodium lights were on along the outer edge of the long dock and the water was lite up in small half dome shapes cast out by the lights. Off in the distance, across the bay I could see a shrimp boat working the surface with its butterfly nets and familiar navigational lighting. Jerry and I leaned against the deck rail looking out over the bay and we chatted about what a blessing it was to be standing there. I don’t think a beer and a cigarette ever tasted better than that moment in time.
If you’re not familiar with the Navy and its ways, you’re probably not familiar with how important “Sea Stories” are to us. By this, I mean there is an art to telling sea stories and there is also a pecking order to the stories told. The more senior members who told their stories got a little more attention and respect. Sometimes there was a lesson to be learn from some stories so us younger guys listened intently to the more “Salty” or as I like to call them “Crusty” sailors. Generally, the fighter squadron guys had the best stories and as a seasoned fighter squadron guy with 12 years’ experience in sea going fighter squadrons, I had a few stories myself. Most sailors these days will rotate from 3 years on a sea duty tour to 3 years on shore duty tour. In my case, I was back-to-back to back sea duty tours in fighter and fighter attack squadrons. It would probably be unheard of today, but I really liked jets and I was good enough at my job to stay in the fighter community way longer than I should have. Most folks never get a glimpse of what it was like in a full-blown fighter squadron as a maintenance man with a bunch of young men and women who are very good at what they do and what they do is charged up with adrenalin during every waking hour. When you work in an environment where mistakes can cost you your life or limb, things are pretty serious. There is an intensity that starts just as soon as you walk out onto the flight deck or tarmac, and it doesn’t end until you collapse from exhaustion at the end of the day. Fighter jets are big and dangerous. They suck like giant vacuums in the front and blow like cat 5 hurricanes out the back end. They make enough noise to drown out every sound around them which takes away a person’s sense of sound while working around them. If you put your foot in the wrong area, they can smash your foot into something that makes roadkill look palatable. Loss of life was not uncommon in my early years in fighter squadrons. A lot of lives lost were caused by work related stuff, but I think just as many were lost to alcohol related incidents. I can remember my first detachment to the Nevada dessert with eight of our brand spanking new F-18 Hornets. We had just received our eighth jet and went to Nevada for our first training mission in the hot Nevada dessert. By the time the 2-week detachment was over, I had lost every penny I had to gambling on my first trip to the casino. I had also met a girl who had a big boyfriend and I promptly wound up in jail with a fat lip after fighting and resisting arrest. It was all in fun until the last day when one of our pilots crashed one of the taxpayers 50-million-dollar aircraft into a shallow water lake in the middle of the desert. He augured in upside down and never had a chance to eject. Probably didn’t even see it coming from the vertigo of flying over water. That was one of my sea stories for the evening’s poker festivities.
Jerry and I walked back into the camp, and we began making preparations for some poker.
When Jerry and I walked through the door Mr. Tom invited us back to the generator room which was a small shed attached to the back deck of the camp by a small wooden gangway. When we entered the generator room we saw a big ole Cummins generator mounted to the center of the floor with a big drip pan under the unit. Mr. Tom explained that if the camp lost parish power, the generator would pick up the load and power the camp. We experienced power outages on later trips to the camp but on this trip we never had to fire up the big Cummins diesel. Mr. Tom told us stories of the camp back in the day when his sons were younger and they had a pool table, a full bar and wild parties at the camp. Sometimes women were brought out to the island camp and with a little alcohol added to a few jealous men, there was bound to be trouble. There were fights and damages to the camp, and for a while the camp was very popular amongst the locals. Over time, the Mr. Toms boys grew into men and moved away from the area and the camp traffic slowed down. Mr. Tom invited a few investor friends into the camp, and they fixed some of the issues with the camp and installed the big dock with boat slips. The inside was remodeled, and the bottom of the camp was reinforced with heavy creosote-soaked pillars to hold the massive structure above the storm surges that sometimes engulfed the island in high tides. Mr. Tom told us a story about a grounds keeper who used to stay on the island full time and a guardian and handyman around the camp. A storm blew up in the gulf and slammed the camp before Mr. Tom could get to the camp for a rescue. The fella had to ride out the hurricane force storm at the camp on the little island as the storm surged wiped out the dock and tore the roof away from the camp. When they were finally able to get the groundskeeper back to shore, he left town and was never seen or heard from again.
We went back in the camp and through the kitchen to the kitchen table where Trent had gotten out the poker chips and cards and made preparations for some serious poker. For the next few hours rum was consumed and money was won and lost. We had plenty of laughs, we told and heard stories from our past experiences and Mr. Tom, although professing to have quit drinking, came out of retirement for a big tumbler of fine rum while watching us play cards. He could see over Jerry’s shoulder from his perch behind the kitchen bar and I tried to read Jerry as well as Mr. Tom who was sometime privy to Jerry’s hand. Every once in a while, we would take a smoke break and walk out on the deck overlooking the bay. We were hoping the wind would lie down before light but when dealing with the back side of a storm front, the wind is always a factor. Our plan for morning was finalized during the poker game and it was decided that Trent and Mr. Tom would take us to a general area where we could spread out and work the bank in search of redfish. This was a time before we had the use of gps and navigation was usually memory based so we wanted to stay close in unfamiliar waters.
We all wound down and managed a few hours’ sleep before we were up and preparing for the morning trip. Mr. Tom was in the kitchen making breakfast with Trent helping out. Eric and I were just fine with a thermos of coffee and a Honey Bun. Eric had the coffee pot going and we both had our old heavy duty Stanley thermos and that held enough coffee for the morning. Actually, it wasn’t coffee at all, but chicory. That was the New Orleans blend of coffee and a staple in just about every household. Chicory coffee can make Folgers taste like cat piss and vice versa. It didn’t matter to me; I was usually just looking for something warm to put in my stomach and something tart enough to clear that rum cloud out of my head. After a little chatting and joking about the night before, we were loading gear into boats and warming motors for our departures. Eric had gone over our gear the night before and we were all set for some red fishing on some new turf. Trent and Mr. Tom pulled out into the bay and waited for the rest of us to gather with them. We joined in the boat parade with Steve and Ken in the middle. We crossed the bay heading west to connect with a main channel that led to the gulf. We were going to be fishing marshy cuts, some oyster beds and little bays just inside the coastline. During high tides the redfish would frequent these areas in search of a diet of crabs, oysters, shrimp and baitfish. They are very strong fish and very heavy eaters as Redfish grow at incredible rates due to the abundance of food in the marsh. They have strong shoulders and I’ve often said that in comparison with a Georgia striped bass, the Louisiana redfish is a bit stronger, only because you have to be a little tougher to live in Louisiana.
Fully loaded, we left the bay and entered the main channel heading for the gulf. The channel was wide and deep to accommodate the heavy oil business related boats coming in and out of the gulf. I could tell from the shoreline that we were in a high tide which was perfect for the type of fishing we were going to be doing. I could see the gulf, looking west down the canal when Trent and Mr. Tom slowed their boat and made a sharp right turn into a narrow winding cut. We followed, bringing up the rear and watching for signs that we could use for landmarks. The small cut widened a little and an anchored shrimp boat came into view. Sometimes the shrimpers would anchor in small canals to sleep during the day and run their butterfly nets all night and I wondered if the shrimp boat was the same one, we saw out in the bay the night before. We passed the shrimp boat and soon we found a large open area that was nothing but thick marsh with large open areas filled with oyster beds and smaller winding cuts to explore. The tide was moving in, and the marsh was flooding as we started our morning of fishing. Mr. Tom told us that we could spread out across the marsh and just start casting and looking while moving slowly in different directions and if we found a large group of reds, we would try our best to get the other boats into the area. Mr. Tom told us that there should be pockets and points that held redfish, it was just a matter of finding the right area. Jerry, Eric and I moved to the opposite side of the little bay from Trent and Mr. Tom. Jerry’s Sea Ray had the old style dual trolling motors mounted on the transom. We kicked in the trolling motors and started down the shoreline looking and blind casting the points and pockets lined with the heavy marsh grass. We joked around and drank coffee while moving slowly along the shore. I looked ahead of the Sea Ray after something caught the corner of my eye. It was something moving along the shore, creating a wake as it moved. I focused on the wake and soon I saw a bunch of grass shrimp scatter from under the marsh grass canopy along the shore. The water erupted in a big splash and several boils on the surface, and I shouted, “Big Redfish”! Jerry nearly spewed coffee as my shout pierced the morning silence. We watched as the pack of redfish worked the shore out ahead of us. We need to catch up and pass the moving reds so we could get into position for a few good casts out in front of the reds. Jerry kicked in the trolling motors, and we swung the boat wide, to the opposite side of the wide cut we were fishing. We watched as we passed parallel the moving reds, they were in full feeding mode, and they were attacking anything that moved. That’s one of the things I learned about redfish years ago, they are very aggressive eaters and fairly easy to catch with a variety of baits when they are feeding. When they are not feeding, they can be frustrating and make a seasoned angler look like a fool. I’ve pulled into a small open bay from a cut before and watched every redfish file out of the bay, right by my boat and out the cut. They can be spooky at times, but I also found something very interesting and a sure sign of feeding redfish. It was pretty basic if you stop and think about it but when redfish are in a feeding mode, they are also dropping turds as they go. Believe it or not, a 30-inch redfish turd can be somewhat big, and they resemble a miniature dog turd, and a big pod of redfish can produce a lot of floating turds in a feeding area. I suppose they float for a while before being swept away by the tide or they biodegrade into the marsh. At any rate, I found it to be a sign of feeding reds on almost every occasion I saw the flotilla of dark green colored fish turds.
We got out ahead of the moving reds and positioned the boat to where we could all get a good cast into the pod. The reds slowly worked their way into the area we could cast and on the count of three we all three cast into the same area where the fish were moving. These were bigger redfish and when the first lure hit the water a redfish swirled on the plastic minnow Eric had thrown. I watched and felt the boat shutter as Eric set the hook and said: “Got Him”! Jerry’s rod doubled over, and I looked down Jerry’s line and saw a big muddy swirl where the line met the water. It was a double and I needed to get on the board for a triple. I burned my little jig head and plastic cockahoe minnow back to the boat and quickly threw back into the area while Jerry and Eric were busy fighting their fish. Just as soon as my minnow hit the water, I felt a larger red hammer my jig and did what most reds will do when hooked, and that’s to head to deeper water. I think a natural reaction for just about any fish is to head for the safety of the depths. My fish headed for the middle of the cut, off the stern while Jerry and Eric fought their fish up towards the bow. It was a nice triple of big fish first thing in the morning. “These reds would be great for the cooler and tonight’s dinner” Jerry said as we netted the three nice reds. We regrouped and looked at the shore where we ambushed to reds, it was a muddy mess with churned up water in the aftermath. The reds were long gone, and we started moving down the shoreline again, we were all looking for the same signs as the first group we ran across. We wondered how the others were doing and hoping they were on the same pattern as us. We could see the silhouette of the other boats as week looked to the west, but we had no idea how their morning was going. As the morning progressed and we continued down the shoreline, we determined that the best areas to find the occasional redfish was the little pockets or pools off the main channel of the shoreline. The redfish waited in the pockets for the occasional passing mullet and our little swimbaits were just enough to capture the redfish as they hid in the pools. I think Jerry, Eric and I finished the morning with 2-3 nice redfish a piece and a couple of specks that would occasionally surface in the deeper parts of the channels while we ran the shoreline. We made our way back to the area we had started fishing and found Mr. Tom and Trent in the area we had saw the shrimp boat anchored in the early morning hours. They were waiting on us to come out and we joined up to head back to the camp for lunch.
The camp wasn’t far and when we pulled out of the main channel and headed across the lake in fron of the camp I could see the others already walking around the big dock facing the lake. Our 2 pilot friends were out on the dock and waiting for our arrival with a full sack of Salvo’s delicious Po’boys for lunch. We were pretty excited about our morning in the marsh, and we were looking forward to getting backout for the afternoon. When we pulled into one of the slips at the dock, we were greeted by Rick, our Commanding Officer and Dan, my Division Officer, with a sack of Po’boys. Most of the time I wouldn’t turn down a shrimp Po’boy, but I also loved the oyster Po’boy and they had one with my name on it. Rick told us to stick around outside because they had a big surprise for all of us in the group standing on the deck. It was mostly for Mr. Tom and his hospitality, but it was also for us enlisted guys to enjoy. Rick checked his watch and said, “any minute now we should see XO (executive officer) returning from his cross-country flight”. This meant that our XO was going to give us a little airshow. We were all standing on the dock, eating lunch and looking off to the west because the XO was returning from California. We figured that he would be flying low and fast across the lake to the left. We were all waiting and watch when out of nowhere that joker, the XO, came from behind the cabin from the south, about 50 feet off the deck and hauling ass at about 500 knots. It scared the shit out of us all. He hit the afterburners right over the top of us and shot straight up vertically and started rotating as he went. He disappeared to the west, and we were all watching to see where he was. We couldn’t really see behind the camp, and he dropped down to our south again for another pass. This time he blew right over the top of us and the dropped down to about 20 feet off the water just getting it. The exhaust from the jet churned up the water behind him and then jerked the stick back for another vertical climb. Jerry and I were high fiving each other and laughing on every pass. It’s not very often that you get your own personal airshow, but I can tell you that I was very proud to be an American and very proud to be in the Navy at that moment. I think Mr. Tom had a permanent smile on his face from all the flyovers at his camp and I know he never forgot it.
When Mr. Tom passed a few years later, our squadron aircraft did a flyover at his funeral. I was not present for it because I had transferred, but I was told by Jerry that the city of Belle Chase told the pilots that they could not fly lower than two thousand feet due to a giant water tower and a few radio towers in the area of the cemetery. In true VFA-204 River Rattler fashion, six F-18 Hornets dropped down to 100 feet in altitude at 600 mph and Gave Mr. Tom a sendoff like no other. The city of Belle Chase just had to deal with it.
After lunch we all headed back out to the same general area with our new guests, the fly-fishing pilots. We all spent the afternoon doing the same thing, just running the banks with swimbaits, making cast after cast, and catching the occasional redfish. When we converged back at the camp right before dark, everyone had caught a few reds and trout, so we had plenty of fish for dinner. The pilots had also brought a big bag full of ribeye’s, so we were eating like kings. The night was filled with food, more rum, poker and a little night fishing down at the dock. The big sodium lights were on, and bait was all over the lit dock. The two pilots took their fly rods down to the dock and caught a giant mess of sea trout and speckled trout with the fly-fishing gear. Jerry and I took a break from our poker game at one point and walked down to the dock to visit with the pilots. They were so stoked to be able to enjoy fishing in this setting and Jerry and I just laughed at them catching those trout. They were like two kids in a candy store. Officers usually led a more refined kind of lifestyle than us enlisted folks and sometimes the rough rhetoric could be a little much for the more refined pilots. While I was down at the dock, the pilots asked how they could get an invite back again and Jerry said, “if Mr. Tom wants you back, he’ll give you an invite back. I took note of that and hoped he would invite me back.
Everyone was pretty tired from a full day of fishing, and we all turned in a little earlier than the previous night. Another front was moving in overnight and we were greeted by heavy weather in the morning for our trip back home. Jerry, Eric, Mr. Tom and I rode in Jerry’s boat while towing Eric’s disabled boat back to the launch and during the course of our boat ride back to the launch Mr. Tom told me that I could come back anytime, and he really enjoyed my company as well as the others in the boat. I had hoped to make a good impression on Mr. Tom, and I did. He knew I loved to fish, and I took to the camp like a fish to water after that.
Myself, Jerry, Eric and Trent made more trips to the camp with Mr.Tom over the next year or so, till I had to transfer. I never got back out to the camp after leaving the area and Mr. Tom passed 2 years after I left.
I’ve really wanted to finish this story for a while, but I just didn’t know how to end it. I never really wanted those times to end so I’ve never ended the story until now.
My good friend Jerry Thomas was the one who gave me the first invite to Man Camp, and I wanted to finish this story for him. One time I asked Jerry why he hung out with a guy like me, and I’ll never forget what he told me for as long as I live.
Jerry said: “Jim, when you surround yourself with successful people, that shit can rub off and that’s why I hang out with you”. -Well, it certainly rubbed off on me Jerry. RIP buddy.